Steel Hammer, inspired by composer Julia Wolfe’s long-held love of the legends and music of Appalachia, focuses on the story of John Henry – the quintessential American tale. Some say John Henry is from West Virginia, others say from South Carolina or New Jersey, and the text was compiled from more than 200 versions of the John Henry ballad that have been circulating for well over a century. But the focal point of the story is clear enough. Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the Industrial Age as his superhuman strength is challenged in a contest to out-dig an engine. Human endeavour versus “the machine”.
Evoking the rich instrumental colours of Appalachia, with the addition of instruments including mountain dulcimers, wooden bones, banjo and steel hammers, Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval, with their pure and direct sound, fuse their musical worlds to tell this timeless tale and create a new genre of art balladry.